HSE waits four months to buy skin cancer drug

HSE chiefs were given the green light to buy a costly new skin cancer drug four months ago, but only made the move last night after a major political storm “concentrated minds”.

The Irish Examiner understands the National Cancer Control Platform told HSE officials in January it was in favour of purchasing Ipilimumab for use in Ireland.

The National Centre for Pharmaeconomic financial calculations said the drug, which costs €85,000 per patient and on average only lengthens life by months or years, did not represent value for money.

However, the final decision by the NCCP said the clinical trials and plans on how the medication would be made available over-ruled the economic factor, which has been heavily criticised in recent days for paying more attention to costs than to patients.

For the past four months the drug, with a number of other medications, has been awaiting authorisation from the HSE after being signed off on for purchase.

However, it is understood the move was delayed because the country’s dire financial circumstances meant it was unclear whether the health service could afford to buy up this medication before or instead of other drugs for various illnesses.

After public outrage at Government over the drug’s lack of availability, Taoiseach Enda Kenny told the Dáil on Wednesday night he expected “a conclusion will be reached quickly, allowing the drug to be released to the market”.

Just 24 hours later, the HSE last night confirmed the medication — which is competing with other drugs for a limited amount of money — will be made available immediately.

“The HSE and National Cancer Control Platform are pleased to announce that Ipilumumab, the new drug for patients with progressive melanoma, will now be made available.”

“Ipilumumab has been demonstrated to improve survival for patients with advanced disease.

“Although the overall impact on median survival for the entire group is modest, extended from nine to 11.2 months in first treatment and from six months to 10 months in second treatment, the major benefit of the drug is that a minority of patients will have a sustained improvement in control of their cancer and in survival.”

The drug, which may yet come down in price, will be available in the coming days, with 60 cancer patients expected to benefit this year.

The lack of availability of the Bristol Myers-Squibb skin cancer drug, which had been put down to the cost involved, has caused political uproar in recent days. The furore led to claims by Independent senator and cancer specialist, Prof John Crown, that value-for-money decisions at the centre of the dispute were based on too-simplistic maths “a sixth class student could do”.

He added that in his view there has been a “rationing” of new medicine expenditure due to the country’s dire financial circumstances.

However, he stressed he was “delighted” by the decision, and praised Health Minister James Reilly for seeing the “humanity and logic” in making the medication available.

However, speaking on RTE’s Drivetime programme yesterday, Dr Michael Barry, clinical director of the NCPE, said the group “did not get it wrong” when saying the drug does not offer value for money at its current price.


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